Recognizing Abuse of Spiritual Authority in the Church

Spiritual abuse in the church?… The answer is…Absolutely! As a certified biblical counselor, I have counseled many who have suffered this phenomenon. And as a Christian sitting under the authority of several different Christian leaders, I have personally witnessed this subtle yet real manipulation of Scripture to control and dominate others for one’s own exaltation and/or revenge.

In the revealing book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, the authors Johnson & VanVonderen break the silence on an abuse within the church that leaves Christians feeling “used”, manipulated and/or shamed. 

To quote the authors, “Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above the one who comes to them in need.” The end result is the leader sends the message that the other person’s spirituality is “defective”.  Instead of bringing life and restoration, he brings shame and condemnation, destroying spiritual passion and life within the believer who has come to him in need or that he is using whether intentionally or not intentionally for his own need to feel spiritually superior. Sometimes the leader desires to extract his pound of flesh on one whom he has felt threatened by or whom he perceives has disrespected him in some way.

When studying the gospels, it is clear that part of Jesus’ mission was to expose an abusive system. We will look at “Brood of Vipers” (Matthew 12) in the next post. Consider “Brood of Vipers” (Matthew 12) and Matthew 7:15 .  This is eye opening, so please listen closely.  Notice in the gospel accounts these four things about those Jesus had confrontations with concerning spiritual abuse, as pointed out by Johnson & VanVonderen:

  1.  His confrontations landed on those who saw themselves as God’s official spokespersons – the most religious, the best performers. They had more Scripture memorized than any one. They set the standard for everyone else.
  2. Jesus broke the religious rules by confronting those in authority out loud. How many pastors will not allow for congregants to share their feelings and opinions with them or to confront them about their error today? Hopefully this is not the case in the church you belong.
  3. Jesus was treated as the problem because He said there was a problem.
  4. Before His (Jesus’) persecution, people rushed to Him because His message offered hope and rest.

Now let’s take a deeper look at Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Notice the term “ravenous wolves” is being used in the same passage in which Jesus speaks about the wide and narrow gates by which people enter in search of inner life. Most Christians hear sermons on this text that define “entering by the wide gate” as following the ways of the “world” – that is, going to worldly movies, bars, etc. Entering by the narrow gate is said to mean reading the Bible, going to church, etc. In other words, the two gates are reduced to lists of what to do or not to do. But if we put aside our previous teaching and we look at the context, it clearly is teaching something different.

Johnson & VanVonderen point the error in interpretation out like this, “Jesus was talking about false prophets—those who looked like they represented God but spoke falsely. Like the true prophets, those prophets stood in front of a wide gate marked “Find Life Here”, but this was the gate of religious performance and self-effort, and there was no life on the other side, just toil and weariness. True prophets stand in front of a narrow gate—the one that says “Come to Me, all who labor…” you can only fit through this gate if you drop all of your works baggage and come through alone. On the other side you find heavenly rest. If you try to go through with your perfect attendance, or any of your own righteousness, you simply won’t fit. Jesus is the NARROW GATE.”

Does the law, performance according to some leader’s standards, doing it right, looking good or trying hard make up the gate where we find life?  The answer is NO! Jesus is warning us in these passages that those who are leading people to this gate ARE THE RAVENOUS WOLVES. They look like sheep and appear to  be the safest, most righteous and even have an exterior appearance of grace, but they are leading people down the wrong path. Listen, Jesus PLUS anything is NOT JESUS!

It’s worse than this, however, In Matthew 10:6, Jesus sends the disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Where are the lost sheep? They are in the house. Then in verse 16 He gives the warning, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Take note: Where are the wolves?  They are in the house.

We also Paul concerned about the wolves in the house.  A concerned Paul while preparing to leave Ephesus, says in Acts 20, I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise.” You see, when the leader, Paul, leaves he is concerned that the one who will rise up in their midst to lead will be a wolf who will destroy the flock. He is concerned of the damage he will do to their spiritual walk. This is what he is talking about. Pastors, leaders who are twisting the Scripture and using the twisted Scripture for their own purposes.

The most chilling part of this scenario is the words “in sheep’s clothing.” Most Christians are taught by the leaders that this is a sheep that comes in and mingles with them who is really a wolf there to eat them and destroy their spiritual walk. This is a convenient teaching as it gives the leader an excuse for when he abuses his position of authority with an individual in the flock. He can say, “I am trying to protect the flock.”  How many of you have heard that type of statement?  Sadly, the answer is too many.

It is true that the destruction Jesus and Paul are talking about is done within the flock, BUT it is done by FALSE SHEPHERDS, not FALSE SHEEP. It is the false shepherds – wolves – that we are to keep watch that they do not devour their flock in order to get their sheep’s clothing. In other words, it is the leader of the church who is leading entire flocks of sheep down the path of destruction. Not a sheep in the flock of the Shepherd Sheep. It is the shepherd himself, the leader who is overseeing the flock whom Jesus is warning us to beware of. He is the one who has the position of influence that if used wrongly can destroy others. Jesus and Paul warn the sheep to beware of these false leaders, the pharisaic leaders, the leaders who are in a position of authority, leading them astray with their false doctrines and/or their abusive use of their position of authority as they use it to to lift and edify themselves by beating up one or more in their flock with Scripture and church discipline.

The sheep need to stand up and hold their leaders (the Shepherds) accountable. To allow them to run wild is not doing them or the church a favor and it does not bring glory to Christ. But sadly, few will do it. Most are afraid to confront them. Many are afraid they will lose favor with them. Some are concerned about their personal interests that may be affected so they allow wrong to be done.  Ignoring the abuse usually results in its increase. Perhaps the next time, it is one of those sheep who ignore the abuse who find themselves being abused.

Read Ezekiel 22:25, 27.  Again, Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets,” – wolves are in the house and some of them are in CHARGE.

Most times symptoms of spiritual abuse or abuse of spiritual authority are able to be seen by others. Feel free to share situations you have experienced, seen, or heard of, or any input you might have on this topic.


About Sarah Goebel

I live for Christ and I welcome opportunities to share His grace, love and transforming power. God has blessed me to be able to author 3 books: Experience Godliness God's Way, Experience Real Satisfaction (the Abundant Living Pkg), and Enjoying God through Purposeful Living. You can find out more about me by visiting my website at While you are there, I hope you will register for my mailing list. And while here on this blog site, I hope you will consider clicking on the "Networked Blog Follow" button to receive notification when I post something new. Remember that you are loved tremendously & empowered by His grace! So, Enjoy God, find your satisfaction in Him and be transformed from glory to glory!
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3 Responses to Recognizing Abuse of Spiritual Authority in the Church

  1. Great post, Sarah. I think any church person in authority can abuse their authority. I’ve seen abuse by pastors, the ministers in the church, Sunday school teachers, Sunday school directors, kitchen committee leaders, other committee directors. I see how one can eventually have her faith tested. But I also know that these who abuse their authority will pay a higher price for their actions than the sheep who allow themselves to be led astray.


    • Sarah Goebel says:

      Thank you, Hannah. I agree — those who abuse will be held to the greatest account for their actions. In fact, any one in a position of authority in someone’s life should do a check up on how they use their authority. Parents and teachers, for example, have also been known to abuse those they influence. I suppose when it comes down to it, we all should consider who we influence, who we have authority over and how we are handling it. The abuse of authority and power is a heart condition resulting from man’s fallen nature.


  2. Pingback: The Good Christian (Part 1) | daileytalks

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